Monday, 12 September 2016

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

 
published 1930

 
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In the little boat were two girls, one steering, the other sitting in the middle thwart. The two girls were almost exactly alike. Both had red knitted caps, brown shirts, blue knickerbockers and no stockings. They were steering straight for the island.


 
Swallows and amazons


[Later]
In the middle of the camp a tall stick was stuck in the ground with a black pirate flag blowing from the top of it. But there seemed to be nobody there. Then, inside their own tents, they saw two figures, kneeling, one with a bow ready to shoot, the other fitting an arrow.

“It’s not the houseboat man,” said Titty. “It’s the pirates from the pirate ship.”

“And in our tents,” said Susan.

“Let’s take them prisoners,” said Roger.

“Hands up,” said the pirate girl from the Amazon, who was in the captain’s tent.

“Hands up yourselves,” cried Captain John, and made as if to leap to his feet. Both the pirates shot off their arrows.

“Now,” shouted John, “before they load again. Swallows for ever!”

The four Swallows were up and half-way across the open space in a moment.

The red-capped Amazons leapt up out of the tents to meet them.


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commentary: Either you love Swallows & Amazons or you don’t – they seem to induce strong feelings.

I’ve recently been praising Ferdinand Mount and his writings on books, but on Ransome we disagree: he says the books are ‘to be avoided with horror and loathing by any young person with the slightest vestige of humour or subversion’ and he longs for the children therein to be ‘deported to the island in Lord of the Flies.’ He criticizes their middle-classness, their sanitized world – which, tbh, you think he probably shared. Given his background, he hasn’t really got the workingclass credentials to mock child siblings who sail together and play together.

I, on the other hand, am a child of the city, and sailing would have seemed as unlikely as flying in my childhood, but I loved every word of this whole series, and borrowed them repeatedly from the library. (In Mount’s world, he makes clear, they would have been hard-backed books bought as presents for the children.) I asked friends if they had read the books, and those who liked them, loved them – the others couldn’t get on with them at all. No lukewarm feelings here.

There’s been a TV series and two films of Swallows and Amazons – a new one out this year. The previous one, filmed in 1973, lives on in many hearts and you can find a lot of discussion of it on the internet. Mate Susan was played by the intensely beautiful Suzanna Hamilton, who went on to appear as an adult in films such as 1984 and Out of Africa - and I have met her. Sophie Neville, who played Titty, has been interviewed, and has written, about the experience of making the film several times.

The new film has had an extra plotline (about spies) bolted on, and has taken some features from the 1974 film rather than book, but is highly enjoyable. If you can’t thrill to the sight of small dinghies skimming across the water in the Lake District (even if you would hate to be on one) then you are dead inside, and that is that.

The books are still tremendous fun to read, though looking at this as a mother I was faintly horrified by the lack of care and safety. A running joke is that young Roger can’t actually swim, he just pretends to be able to, in order to go on the camping trip. There isn’t a lifejacket in sight as far as I can tell. The author certainly sides with the children, who finds the parents (‘natives’) very dull and liable to worry, and there is a telling and convincing moment when the children nearly blow it by turning up late to collect their milk, of all things.

Some people are quite sniffy about Mate Susan and her interest in cooking and keeping the camp ship-shape - but those are essential skills for outdoor adventurers. And think of Nancy Blackett, the terror of the seas. She was one of my favourite heroines when I was about 10: I’m a lot older now, but I still think she’s great, and that she was an excellent role model. Nothing girly about the adventurous Nancy.

Top picture is a still from the most recent film. The pirate hat is available on etsy

Person in a rowing boat (John? Nancy?) is from the Library of Congress’s collection of views of Britain – it shows Broomhill Point on Derwentwater.

























30 comments:

  1. Moira, as a fan of Enid Blyton, the Hardy Boys and Just William in my early and mid-teens, I don't know how I missed this series. I haven't come across sailing in fiction but I do like a good children's adventure even now.

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    1. Oh Prashant, you must read these! If you liked those books you will LOVE these.

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  2. I know just what you mean, Moira, about certain books (like this one). You either love them or you hate them, and there really is, as you say, no middle ground. This one does sound like fun, though, and the bit you've shared packs a real visual punch. I always appreciate that, especially in a children's book.

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    1. They have cast their spell over me all over again - it puzzles me how anyone can resist...

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  3. I'm firmly in the love them camp. I remember collecting them all with their pale blue spines - I wish I still had them. I took my daughter to see the most recent film when it came out - I thought she might find it a bit old fashioned or not enough adventure or CGI but she was enchanted (phew). I really liked the clothes - I do sort of dress my daughter a bit like Titty (Tatty!) and Kelly Macdonald had on a gorgeous turquoise and white tea dress on at one point (when it comes out on DVD I will be able to freeze frame it and see it for longer. My late Dad used to take me sailing every so often - never did get the hang of when to duck for the boom.

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    1. Great to find another fan, and yes, I really liked the film, including costumes props and setting. I didn't do any sailing till I was an adult - and I didn't have any talent for it either.

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  4. I love them too. Have never read all of them (am firmly intending to), but have read them out of sequence, and some repeatedly since my childhood. Interesting Ferdinand Mount's comment re S&A and Lord of the Flies. I had thought of them as being rather middle-class and perhaps slightly twee, but reading Swallowdale a few years ago completely changed my mind. I had never realised before what a depth there was to the book about quite adult - dealing with death and loss, for example - http://the-bookhound.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/back-to-those-long-hot-summers.html. I think they are much richer reads than some critics believe.

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    1. I totally agree, and really enjoyed reading your post on Swallowdale. I have just re-read that, and S&A, in quick succession, and am completely entranced by them. And, yes, they are much better than their detractors claim - rich and charming and with amazing detail.

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  5. I loved these as a child but keep finding more and more on rereading. Nancy is a great role model, but not just with the sailing and adventure stuff; the bits in Swallowdale and The Picts and the Martyrs where she worries about the Great Aunt criticising her mother have real emotional depth. My favourite is Dorothea - worrying about fitting in with the Swallows and Amazons in Winter Holiday, and when she comes into her own as a detective in The Bug Six. Maybe Ransome wouldn't have considered himself a feminist, but I can't think of many children's authors from that time who wrote such well-rounded and interesting female characters.

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    1. Yes I agree. And doing some re-reading, of course Susan does cooking and tidying. But she is competent, and organizes the others, she is a leadership mate - and it is made obvious that her role is essential.
      Yes Swallowdale is unexpectedly touching in an unsentimental way. I told one of the commenters above that I was like Titty holding the telescope to her eye for too long - a native might have thought there was a tear there when I read about the box in the cairn.
      Am moving on to Winter Holiday now.

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  6. I read Secret Water when I was the only American in the Juniors at Sandon County Council School in Herts. What captivated me was the notion of children acting independently, sailing their boats and putting their own stamp on the geography, "Wild Cat Island" and so forth. At about the same time I read Tom Sawyer, which my father had given me, and got an American twist on the same idea.

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    1. An unexpected detail from your childhood Claude! Yes, independence ahoy, on both sides of the Atlantic.
      Did you see Slate celebrating 20th anniversary? Where did that time go...

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  7. Moira: The series sounds great. I never encountered it as a boy. I wish I had.

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    1. I'm sure you'd have loved them - they make adventurous independent children of us all, at whatever age we read them. I am full of nostalgia as I re-read.

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  8. Mount does sound a bit like one of those very posh people who are always describing working class life as 'more authentic' whilst not realising that a lot of those people he is patronising wouldn't mind a bit of that 'We've-got-our-own-boat-and-will-there-still-be-jam-for-tea?' lifestyle. I read some of the books after I'd grown up, and was surprised to find that the book was the first in a series rather than a stand-alone. The whole thing of roaming for hours without adult supervision does sound like my own childhood, just without the boats. I'm not sure if it means that we were neglected or that modern childhood is more restricted!

    The Beeb did a version of COOT CLUB and THE BIG SIX back in the '80s which my Mum absolutely adored (I had to get her the DVD when it came out) even though she didn't know one end of a boat from another.

    One of the things that strikes me about the books is that they appeal to both kids and adults by avoiding sentimentality. They go into a great deal of detail about stuff like camping out and are pretty tough minded, which kids love.

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    1. Yes, I just found out about the Coot Club prog when looking the series up now - I have no recollection at all, that obviously passed me by, though I'd have watched it whatever age I was then.
      Yes they are tremendously detailed, which I loved despite the complete lack of boats and camping in my life, but also he very cleverly does the double imagination thing: the children are having an adventure that most of us would give our pocket money for anyone, but everyone takes their pretence game very seriously - that they are pirates, or ARctic explorers, or mountain climbers: that they are in danger, must avoid the natives, beware of savages etc. Reading them now I am very very impressed with how he carries that off, and I think it's very unusual, I can't think of any more examples.

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  9. Either you love Swallows & Amazons or you don’t - I'll claim indifference.

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    1. I'm sure you'd like them if you tried them. Endless murders among the boat-sailing children. Oh, OK, that's a complete lie.

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  10. I will let you keep me informed on this author and his books. I would like to give this one a try and see which side I fall on, but too much else to read.

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    1. Maybe it will grab you one day - but there are just far too many books...

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  11. I seem to remember reading something about these books to the effect that you were either a Just William fan, or a Swallows and Amazons fan, and you didn't get the other set of books.

    I did read both. Not come back to Swallows, but I adore the William stories - they are SO funny and so satirical and unrelentingly brutal with the social commentary. But I didn't hate the Swallows at all - I just don't remember particularly loving them, but I am intrigued to revisit them at some point as I recall reading/rereading them quite a few times. I do remember that I really liked Dick and Dorothea a lot, because they felt more like my kind of people.

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    1. Oh interesting! I liked both, but am a lot more likely to re-read S&A. And yes the two Ds are very good - I read a commenter on children's fiction who said they were almost unique in 30s stories in being intellectual and not THAT sporty, yet also nice and normal. I've just been re-reading Winter Holiday (where they first arrive) and it is terrific stuff.

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    2. Just revisited (or at least read - not sure if I had read it before) Great Northern? and have to say that while it was a good story, I actually found it all a little earnest and oddly sluggish. It wasn't bad. There was a lot to like. But I think at the end of the day, I felt it was a little earnest, and although there was plenty of derring-do and drama and a splendidly loathsome villain in an evil bird's egg collector, it also reminded me that I never really "connected" with Ransome. I like him a lot, he is readable, and definitely not lacking in humour, but it is a very dry, very elusive humour... But I feel that if you don't really share his passion for what he writes about, it's difficult to get into. I left my read copy in a book exchange at Tallinn airport.

      Interesting to revisit, and worth a ton of respect for so many very good reasons, but I kind of miss the robust anarchy and silliness of William, or even better, Evadne Price's "Jane" books - which are MUCH better than William IMO, although I have sadly only read the Jane and Co anthology.

      Oh God, Jane - I am crying with laughter at the memory of when she got sent to stay with her GHASTLY grandparents to improve her behaviour, and when she actually decided to try and improve, she ended up turning her grandmother's best dress into jelly.

      There's a WONDERFUL comment on this blog from a Pet Jeffrey on why the Jane stories are so good...

      https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2012/08/25/the-jane-books-by-evadne-price/

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    3. I'm floating through the S&A books with very different reactions - Coot Club was rather a disappointment, and sounds rather like Great Northern? (which I loved as a child for the question mark in the title) in its plot, so I won't expect much from a GN? reread. But I absolutely loved Winter Holiday (blogpost will come later).
      So then: Jane - never heard of her, sounds fabulous. Have ordered a book, we'll see.

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  12. As a devotee of Ransome your interesting post raised two thoughts in particular in my mind, before I expand upon them I should declare I read the 'Swallows and Amazons' series first when I was ten or eleven years old and still regularly read them and I am now approaching my mid-sixties.

    As you say people either love Ransome's books or hate them, and in my experience those that hate them tend to be people who have never read them and base their view on what they think they are like.

    Then there are clothes, until seeing your blog it had never occured to me that Ransome only mentions clothes in some detail on two or three occasions. The red knitted caps, knickerbockers in 'Swallowdale' and in the same book the dresses worn by Nancy and Peggy when with the dreaded Great Aunt Maria.

    What makes Ransome such a great writer of books for children is that he did not write for children or ever consider himself a children's writer. What he excels at is describing how things work and how to do things, as well writing of the world of children who fend for themselves without the overbearing interference of adults.

    For me, and other adults who still read them, he created a world that I identified with and took me away from my real childhood (which had various problems such as major illness and death of a sibling.)

    He is rare in writers of the period that all is books are still in print in hardback and paperback and continue to sell, as for the 2016 film the less said the better!

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    1. I agree with nearly all that you say, except that I really liked the film, and loved taking my son to it! But I can understand the purist view too.
      YOurs is a great description of what makes him such a good writer. And I totally agree - the people who criticize don't seem to have read him at all. I said in another blogpost recently that I had read a criticism that he was 'humourless'. No-one who had read the books could say that!

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  13. Thanks for your response.

    It is interesting you comment about Ransome being described as 'humourless', the recent book 'Swallows, Amazons and Coots' by Julian Lovelock giving an academic analysis of the books makes many references to the 'comedy' in them with which I would strongly disagree (and have done so at some length here http://held-to-ransome.blogspot.co.uk/)

    I would agree that Ransome describes his characters showing humour amongst them but he is not a 'comic' writer.

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    1. I have just read your piece - most interesting. I agree that they are not funny books in the way that Jennings is - I think I was arguing against the description of him as 'humourless', when I think there IS a gentle underlying good nature - and humour.

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    2. Thanks again.

      I did understand your point about Ransome and being considered humourless, I could have worded my response more clearly! ( A case where it is easy to dash off a quick reply when a considered one may take days.)

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    3. No, I understood exactly what you meant - if anything, I just thought I would hate someone reading our exchange to come away with the idea that he is humourless, and potentially be put off!

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